It’s hard to imagine how difficult it had to be for someone to invent all the things we now can’t live without, which is why the charged battle over rival electricity systems, fought between two brilliant visionaries, is so illuminating.
Fuelled by the intense rivalry between electricity titans Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse, THE CURRENT WAR tells the epic story of the cutthroat competition that literally lit up the modern world.
Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon and executive produced by Martin Scorsese, the film stars
Benedict Cumberbatch as Thomas Edison, the celebrity inventor who, backed by JP Morgan (Matthew Macfadyen), is on the verge of bringing electricity to Manhattan with his radical new direct current (DC) technology.
On the eve of triumph, his plans are upended by the charismatic businessman George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) who, aided by the legendary genius and scientific maverick Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult) – here just a young upstart – has discovered fatal flaws in Edison’s DC design. Igniting a war of currents, Westinghouse and Tesla bet everything on a risky and dangerous idea for how to rapidly electrify America: with alternating current (AC).
Hostilities boil and lives are lost as the rivalry plays out on a thrilling, world-changing scale. As Edison and Westinghouse vie for the right to power the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, they spark one of the first and greatest corporate feuds in American history, establishing for future Titans of Industry the need to break all the rules.
When considering the look and feel of the film, the rules weren’t in Gomez-Rejon’s playbook, either. Rather than a stuffy period piece, he wanted to juice up THE CURRENT WAR with energy and bring a modern spirit to its telling. “I just didn’t think it was what this movie needed,” says the director. “These men were futurists and I wanted the film to be in sync with the spontaneity of their ideas.”
He took inspiration from the tumultuous changes of the late 19th century. “Everything that was happening in the world at that time was evolving quickly. I felt that if I could capture that energy then this could be decent.” He teamed up with his Me And Earl and The Dying Girl cinematographer, Chung Chung-hoon, to inject the energy he desired.
Written by playwright Michael Mitnick, THE CURRENT WAR is high-minded and poised; it shows that while Edison and Westinghouse had vastly different personalities, they also had a lot in common.
In the film, Edison is intoxicated by his own genius. He is a lone wolf who takes his employees’ dedication for granted and refuses to share credit. While he loves his wife Mary (Tuppence Middleton) and children, he is too consumed by work to provide the attention they crave.
Westinghouse, by contrast, is devoted to his supportive spouse, Marguerite (Katherine Waterston), whose drive and ambition might even exceed his own. He treats his workers with gratitude and respect and values his collaboration and friendship with electrical engineer Franklin Pope (Stanley Townsend).
The cast is rounded out by Tom Holland, who plays Edison’s young confidant and personal secretary, Samuel Insull.
Edison’s competitive, uncompromising worldview leads him into murky terrain as the film unfolds – he loses his moral compass early in the film, and subsequently loses his way. “The heart of the film is Edison’s relationship with his wife, and the explanation of her fatal illness and what it did to him. You feel her loss deeply and it carries you through as he goes to a dark side without her there to humanise his ambition,” explains Gomez-Rejon.
Cumberbatch describes Edison not as the villain, but as the ‘fallen hero’ of the story. “It’s about stripping the man from his image of himself as a god of industry into being an embittered loser. But then he dusts himself off and he’s off again in search of a new prize. The wheels don’t stop turning in his head just because he’s fixated with one battle and fighting court cases over patents, he’s still doing the good stuff in tandem. He’s a remarkable man with many human flaws.”
That said, THE CURRENT WAR looks beyond the attempt to understand loss and instead offers a feeling of rebirth through creativity, spontaneity, invention – a love of making things and a chance to explore the true nature of winning.
THE CURRENT WAR is a stylised historical drama, with a well-flowing narrative supported by gorgeous cinematography and a rousing score. While its sheds some light on the late 19th century battle between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse to control the power grid, the film offers more than that – it is an inspirational tale about the wonder of invention.
The film is distributed by Filmfinity (Pty) Ltd. and will be released nationwide on 26 July 2019.